It has the making of a movement. The term ‘tehreek’ is more representative, but the impact is lost when confused with the PTI’s middle denomination. Imran Khan’s rally of sit-ins and jalsas has been ensued by a different dynamism that prognosticates a different Pakistan — I have deliberately avoided another cliche here. Perhaps, a better Pakistan, eliciting sentiment as expressed on these pages recently by Fahd Husain, “the future is ours”, “even if none of the players in the ongoing fracas really win”.
A win is a relative state; you do better than the other, you win; you still, though, may not achieve glory. Imran Khan might win, but what great feat is it to win from Nawaz Sharif or his cabal? What we have instead is something quite fabulous and promising, far more deep and reassuring than the lure of a superficial win: a movement built around the middle class of Pakistan, carrying the burden of asking questions of those who we, the people, elect as our representatives into Parliament. This was something, which was hitherto missing from our political equation. That is the change; that will be the change.
When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto stirred the people up in a similar movement, his target was the lowest strata of society: the deprived and the dispossessed; the real miserable, who till then simply existed in a state that they thought was perpetual. He told them they had rights; that, they were the real owners of the lands and the factories and the kilns that they laboured for. He made them relevant and gave them an identity. In a state as feudalistic in its social hierarchy as Pakistan, it wasn’t a mean achievement. Socialism, even if it was of an Islamic contraption, was revolutionary enough in a state such as Pakistan. He infused the idea, implemented it and took the course to reform society towards a more shared existence. Although a committed reformer, he changed course later back to the older order. It still was a minor revolution, not as classic as what Lenin had led or what Mao had enacted, but a change in the socio-political dimension all the same. Pakistan’s polity and society especially, changed for good, finding its new balance. The concern, as we revisit that eventful moment in our history, remains: why did it not sustain? And then: will this one sustain?
It should. It builds around the middle class, an educated lot of people, mostly professionals, and their families, who can each find time for a couple of hours every evening to show their support and solidarity with Imran Khan. The daily event at D-Chowk has turned into one of social mixing, heavenly idealism and some catchy music to go along with it as the crowd sways to the handsome Khan and the crooning that blares from the speakers. There are millions who watch the ritual with equal interest on their television screens. Free airtime to a political leader is a bonanza that Imran has used to great effect, while putting to question the credibility of the sitting government and infusing in the people an essence of democracy that defines it as a two-way contract between the people and the government they elect.
Just as Bhutto, Imran, too, has taught the people that they have a right to question the elite on their claimed entitlement to a status borne out of who they were born to. This touches the chord with the professionals who have had to work through achieving their degrees and their qualifications to make the grade; not so for the hereditary politico, though. This kind of social transformation, where the elite are put to question and shame by those who have earned their status rather than been bestowed with one, is the phenomenon that has touched the imagination of many. For a fledgling democracy in Pakistan, this remains new and empowering. This awakening cannot be a seasonal thing or something that is one-off, but a pattern of politics that must root itself into a shared responsibility in order to ensure fidelity in the political covenant.
Two aspects have seeped into our social attitudes based around this sense of empowerment: there is recourse to unmitigated arrogance bordering on outrageous misconduct — attitudinal, physical and verbal — that the newly empowered have exhibited in recent weeks, enfeebling the little sense of law and responsibility attached to it. It is not yet anarchy, but bordering on it. The other is salubrious: the capacity and ability to ask questions and defend one’s rights, which is the essence of a responsible democratic system. The traditional elite just might hate what they see brewing and have thus distanced themselves from it; rather disturbingly, those below the poverty line, too, remain alien to the process.
Assuming that the political elite is chastened by this newly injected sense of social accountability, and their governance attitudes undergo a significant improvement, how long will it take for the trickledown impact on the lives of the poor and those at the bottom rung in the system? There surely will be spin-off benefits, but in satisfying the educated middle class and their insistent sense of propriety, the political leadership may simply deal with what is urgent, leaving those at the bottom untouched.
Second, will the middle class and those around whom this tehreek seems to build continue to retain the sense to question and monitor how the elite deliver; or having achieved what to them is an upstaging of the powerful, they, too, now will revert to their already comfortable lives, their sense of propriety taking leave off their momentary sense of social sensitivity? Pakistan’s experience with such failures has been unusually stark: a martial law followed Bhutto’s time although there were other reasons for it also.
Then there is the issue of timings: has Imran Khan been pushed into an early hype in his canvassing? What if the elections, even if early, are still two years from now? How will he sustain the momentum of his political thrust, which seems to be almost touching the peak of popularity already? The smarter politician only needs to displace Imran’s phenomenon on the timeline of political play and the Khan may well find himself at a wrong place at a wrong time.
This remains the most fascinating moment in Pakistan’s recent political experience. The question is: is this only a momentary hype or an abiding trait? What Bhutto could not, can Imran achieve? Imran’s own capacity — severely limited — and the resilience of the middle class — highly doubtful — make it a suspect venture.